Story and photos by Annie Fitzsimmons – Virtuoso
In August, hundreds of millions of people witnessed the solar eclipse in North America. The event caused people to “put aside their differences and to gaze in awe at one of nature’s rarest phenomena,” said Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic.
For the spaceline’s Future Astronauts – those who have paid deposits for flight reservations – it was an event to remember, as they gathered together in the shadow of the Tetons in Idaho for “Camp Eclipse.”
Virtuoso’s Matthew and Jessica Upchurch participated in the three-day event with hundreds of Future Astronauts and their guests.
“I thought I was going to see an eclipse. But now I say it’s more about feeling it; it was literally a physical experience,” Upchurch says. “The temperature starts to drop drastically, you see the shadow coming over the sun, and time seems to stand still.”
But the day proved to be more about the camaraderie – and community spirit – than two minutes of totality. “I’ve been partnered with Virgin Galactic since 2007, and when I got involved, it was all about going into space and the flight,” says Upchurch. “But a few years later, I started to tell friends they needed to join this because it’s not just about going to space – it’s about the people you meet – the Future Astronauts, the young engineers, the test pilots – and the incredible things you learn.”
After recovering from the tragic loss of SpaceShipTwo during a 2014 test flight, Virgin Galactic is on track to start powered test flights with its new spacecraft, VSS Unity, soon (the six-passenger vehicle has conducted numerous successful glide flights). During the program’s delays, the Future Astronauts have grown into a community that is about much more than space flight.
Over the years, Matthew has participated in a number of Virgin Galactic events: Next Fest – sponsored by Wired magazine, where they showed a mock-up of the potential interior design by Phillippe Starck, who provided the creative inspiration behind Virgin Galactic’s visual identity; the unveiling of the world’s first commercial spaceship (SpaceShipTwo) with then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Branson in California’s Mojave Desert; and the Farnborough Air Show in 2012 from a special Virgin Galactic enclosure, to name a few.
At the unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s mothership, Eve, which will carry the spacecraft to roughly 50,000 feet (at which point it will detach and blast into suborbital space), Upchurch remembers a question a reporter at the event asked him: “Isn’t this about a bunch of rich people trying to get their jollies?”
His response pointed to every single technological advancement in human history: “It always started with the early adopters. That group may pay huge amounts of money and that money funds the democratization of those technologies or opportunities for everyone else,” Upchurch replied. “How much did it cost to fly on one of the first Pan Am Clipper ships? What about the democratization of the first automobiles?”
“I’ve been in the travel business my entire life,” Upchurch says. He doesn’t consider himself a thrill seeker, but says, “What I love about travel is that it forces you out of your comfort zone to see things from new perspectives. That’s why going to space is the ultimate expression of travel, because it’s a life -changing experience.”
But about the delays leading up to that inaugural space flight? “Given that it actually is rocket science,” Upchurch says with a laugh, “it will be ready when it’s ready. But Virgin Galactic turned it into this wonderful community. As I’ve said in the past, there is a difference between flying on a Boeing aircraft, and becoming friends with Mr. Boeing and getting to know all the people who made the flight possible. Isn’t it interesting how wine always tastes better when you get to know the winemaker?”